I Wanna be Literated #216

I Wanna be Literated #216

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture
by Noam Chomsky

Should Noam Chomsky be required reading for everyone? Of course. The man has written about so many topics, that anyone is bound to find something that appeals to them. And in reading Chomsky, you can always expect your entire understanding of the world to be flipped upside down. You can consider it a challenge for being exposed to an alternate perspective, or you can consider Chomsky someone who helps you gain a better understanding of the world around you. Either way, the man is important.

In this book, Rethinking Camelot, Chomsky considers the historical context in which we’ve put JFK. Not that I’m a JFK fanatic (I do live in a suburb of Boston), but I do understand that people saw him and Jackie as the closest thing we had to royalty. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be flattering, since anti-monarchy is what this country revolted against in the first place, but the Kennedys are definitely revered. The JFK administration’s position in history is one of peacemakers who wanted to bring an end to the Vietnam war, and it’s that idea that Chomsky analyzes.

There are a couple points considered in this book, actually. The first being that JFK was planning to end the Vietnam war: an idea popularized by Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. The second that Lyndon Johnson was more hawkish on Vietnam, which is why he would be the ideal man to put in power if there was desired continued escalation in Vietnam. But, as Chomsky demonstrates through many examples and quotations from Kennedy himself and his advisers, the opposite is true. Kennedy, whose main drive was to prevent communist expansion, only wanted to withdraw if US victory was guaranteed, which was highly unlikely because the US had no support from the Vietnamese locals. He had several advisers, and even the more dovish ones had a relatively aggressive approach to Vietnam: only partial withdrawal, a placement of a US-friendly government, and continued bombing. Those dovish advisers actually made him angry. And Johnson was the one who, in defiance of the hawkish advice he was getting, was taking the more tempered approach to Vietnam. It’s what he ran on, and what he did.

What Chomsky argues is that there has been a rewriting of history, plain and simple, by JFK’s own historians, including Arthur Schlesinger. And this flip happened after the Tet Offensive when the US public started to turn against the war. All because the media was starting to turn on it as well. After that, the JFK administration was being portrayed as harbingers of peace and justice, an idea that was further propagated by the movie JFK (which has strong links to Schlesinger himself).

Rethinking Camelot is a thorough book, full of compelling arguments, and well researched. It’s an important document that helps us understand not just what JFK’s real motivation is, but what the government and the media’s relationship is with its own population. In that sense, it’s a book that all of us can learn from.

Get it from Haymarket.

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